Lee Humiston walks last month among the military artifacts he has collected and displays at the Maine Military Museum and Learning Center in South Portland. Humiston is the museum founder, director and curator and an Air Force veteran himself. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

To fully appreciate Lee Humiston’s passion for all things military, you need to go back more than 70 years to the city of South Portland’s annual household trash pickup.

World War II still burned as a painfully fresh memory. A generation of soldiers had come home laden with mementos and trophies from their tours of duty across Europe, North Africa and the South Pacific. But it was all apparently too much – just three years after the war ended, the stuff started appearing here, there and everywhere amid the piles of curbside rubbish.

Photos of veterans at the museum include Lee Humiston’s father, Leon D. Humiston Sr., top row center, who served in the Navy during World War II. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“My favorite year in history would have been 1948, because the wives were sick to death of all the war souvenirs and the wars,” Lee Humiston, 80, recalled during a recent tour through the Maine Military Museum and Learning Center. “Let me tell you, there were barrels with swords, rifles, flags, helmets sticking out of them up and down the street. And we were all 10-12-year old kids and we’d pick it all up and play with it and have fun with it.”

With that, a collector was born.

You won’t find it on any lists of Maine’s top 10 landmarks – a nondescript, former VFW building on Peary Terrace in South Portland, barely visible from the hustle and bustle of nearby Broadway.

But step inside and it takes your breath away: eerily lifelike mannequins dressed in crisp military uniforms from every era and every service branch; weapons ranging from an ivory-handled British officer’s sword from the War of 1812 to a circa-World War II German KAR98 Mauser bolt-action rifle; a special prisoner-of-war section that features a perfect replica of a cell at what was then North Vietnam’s Hoa Lo Prison, also known as the Hanoi Hilton.

Look more closely among the rooms full of artifacts and you’ll see the finer vestiges of armed conflict: two Purple Heart citations that were torn in half by an embittered Korean veteran, only to be gently taped back together and framed by his sister; a letter home, written by a Maine soldier just before he was killed in action, that ends, “When will this madness end?”

Humiston, himself the son of a World War II veteran, grew up in South Portland and enlisted in the Air Force on Oct. 24, 1956. He still remembers how he and a handful of buddies, galvanized by news of the Hungarian revolt against the Soviet Union, rushed down to the recruiting station thinking they’d soon be going to war.

But there was no war. Instead, Humiston began basic training with two things going for him – a high aptitude for administrative tasks and a knack for commercial-style artistry. He would pursue the latter throughout his six-year military career, traveling the world to put on exhibits extolling the U.S. military.

Along the way, he kept collecting. Patches from the many units with which he crossed paths. Challenge coins signifying that he’d not only met a service member but had won that person’s respect. Rifles, bayonets, battle flags … he gratefully took them all.

Then there were the POW’s.

As a teenager in the Air Force in the mid-1950s, Humiston found himself surrounded by World War II veterans, more than a few of whom had been prisoners of war. Their stories enthralled him. And their frequent gifts of memorabilia from their captivity became his most treasured possessions.

“You know what the POWs call me? They gave me a title that will go on my tombstone: ‘Keeper of the flame,’ ” he said. “And I like it – telling their stories.”

A room filled with American and Japanese World War II artifacts and photos at the Maine Military Museum. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

Upon leaving the military in 1962, Humiston went on to a career in banking in southern California. But he never lost his penchant for collecting, often organizing his artifacts into exhibits that he took to high schools, POW reunions, wherever an interested audience awaited.

Then in 2005, twice divorced, he moved back to South Portland, where he married his current wife, Maureen, the following year.

He had all his paraphernalia shipped here and set up his first exhibit at a local art gallery. Next, he secured the city of South Portland’s permission to move into a cramped, 700-square-foot building at Mill Creek Park.

People began to take notice. Among them was local businessman Gary Crosby, who approached Humiston one day and said, to Humiston’s utter amazement, “How would you like to own your own building?”

He meant the old VFW hall, all 12,000 square feet of it, free of charge. It needed considerable work – most of which was done by work-release inmates from the Cumberland County Jail. Finally, in 2011, Humiston opened the doors.

“It was a big jump,” Humiston recalled. “I couldn’t even fill the back room.”

Did he worry that he’d bitten off more than he could chew?

“No,” he replied with a smile. “I had the dream.”

He still does.

Hardly a day goes by that someone, usually the family of a recently deceased veteran, doesn’t show up at the door laden with uniforms, medals, weaponry and other relics from long-ago military service. Usually it’s been boxed in an attic for decades and the families, in honor of their loved one, want it to go somewhere where it will be preserved, respected and displayed for all the world to see.

On this day, a trove had just arrived from the Maine survivors of Lt. Col. Charles George Yves Normand, who served as a command pilot of the Army Air Corps’ 305th Bombardment Group before he was shot down and captured by the Germans in the summer of 1944. Among the items donated by his family: a picture frame fashioned from the window of a B-17, a silver Ronson lighter and cigarette case, a fork and spoon from the prison camp – each with “C N” etched  on the back.

“This is going to make a heck of an exhibit,” Humiston said, all but salivating over the items spread across two large tables.

The point of it all, Humiston said, is not to glorify war, but rather to pay homage to those who served.

“It’s the history of serving your country,” he said. “I don’t want this to be a war museum. I’m adamant about that. I mean, there’s enough killing that goes on.”

The museum, funded by grants and donations large and small, is in a constant state of reinvention. Soon, one room will focus exclusively on women who served. In another space, Humiston hopes to fire up his vintage popcorn machine and put on Wednesday night war movies – a chance for local veterans to “just sit for a couple hours and have fun.”

“I won’t get mushy on you, but it’s still a fact. This has become a haven for veterans,” Humiston said. “There’s something in this building – and I’m not a believer in ghosts – but there’s something that draws them.”

 


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